In this latest article in The Guide, DPG’s Photo Editor Lia Barrett talks to ocean-obsessed documentary photographer and filmmaker Mark Tipple about how he got into shooting underwater, his work process, and his inspiring film “Duct Tape Surfing.”
DPG: Duct Tape Surfing—what a powerful film. How did you hear about Pascale’s story?
Mark Tipple: Pascale [Honore], Tyron [Swan], and I have mutual friends. At the end of 2013, I returned to Port Lincoln to seek new avenues in what I was doing—the big city chaos of Sydney had lost its interest—and I just wanted to chill out and focus on telling stories I really believed in, not those I had to work on to pay the bills. Just after I arrived, I heard along the grapevine that a guy had surfed Blacks, one of the heavier waves on the coast, with a paraplegic woman taped to his back. At first, I was a little thrown off, thinking it was some form of mockery towards her disability. At the time, one of my clients was a disability charity and from experience it’s hard enough to get donations while portraying how tough it can be to be paraplegic, and hearing this left a sour taste in my mouth
It wasn’t until a few months after the initial surf that I met Pascale at a friend’s birthday party, as she described how riding her first wave felt. Just seeing her beaming smile, the idea of a film was forming, a story of giving the gift of surfing to someone who can’t surf by themselves. My short attention span turned my focus towards the upcoming shoots back in Sydney and that I needed to get on the road within a week, but the “duct-tape surfing” story was niggling at my brain. It took a few days to get the story firm in my head and for us to work out some form of a shooting plan that fitted with all of our schedules, but after four days of pointing the camera at them and some favourable waves, it all came together in the edit.
DPG: The handing off of the GoPro to Tyron, I am guessing, was a tactic to give him the camera once he and Pascale were standing up, but it makes for such a great shooting sequence. Was that from your direction?
MT: In the middle of winter 2010, I was shooting a longboarding surfing documentary in New Zealand, where we somehow flaked into the best swell period in years—flawless 4–6 foot surf for seven days straight. On the eighth day, the swell was fading, and the director made the call to chase the swell down the coast, but on arrival we saw that we had missed the window and all we had was one-footers. For the past week, I’d been trying to get in the way, on purpose, to get the super-crisp wide shots of the surfers flying past on the nose of their board. As they passed, I’d stretch out to follow them, trying to place the viewer on the board so they could ride with them for a moment.
As dynamic as the angle was, I wanted something more from the shot, and as I watched these one-footers playfully reel down the reef, I had an idea to give them a GoPro as they passed me. I found a garden stake nearby and lashed the GoPro to the top, leaving a fair bit of room for both myself and the surfers to hold it on the hand-off. Fast-forward a few years and I’d upgraded to a GoPole instead of a garden stake, but the idea was the same: to put the viewer on the board and allow them to tag along for the ride, which in hindsight is exactly what Pascale is doing with Ty, tagging along for the ride.
DPG: What is your thought process when making a film? Do you scribble out storyboards? Are you methodical or are you more improvisational?
MT: I should really storyboard more, but mostly the shots are just ideas that I workshop with the people when we’re shooting. This way keeps it fresh and interesting. I’m not that creative and would rather have unhindered input without any hierarchy. The story is fairly solid at the time of the interview, but again we workshop it throughout the interview process, which I call a conversation, not an interview, so as not to intimidate the people on camera. This means a lot more footage for me to go through in the edit, but it’s worth it.
DPG: Your work evokes a special sensitivity in storytelling. Would do you set out to achieve with your photography or film?
MT: I just want to be cool by association through pointing a camera at people who are doing rad things! I’ve found that the more I move away from focusing on surfing, the more I notice people who are doing equally amazing things in the ocean that may not involve a surfboard or even riding waves. I have faith in the actual stories inspiring others to take away something they may not have realized before—like energy from the ocean in Pamoja, or the sense of adventure in West Away, or strength through teamwork and a little out-of-the-box thinking in Duct Tape Surfing. When it comes down to it, people left to follow their dreams and passions are pretty darned inspirational.
DPG: How did you become interested in underwater film and photography? Which do you prefer?
MT: My big idea upon leaving high school was to travel the world making surfing films. My mum gave me a Mini DV camcorder, co-signed the load on a funky 700MHz aqua iMac for me to edit from, and gave me a few hundred bucks to make it to the other side of the country to chase the swell through autumn. A few years later I realised that my films were being lost in the void of every other kid with a dream and a camera, and weren’t even touching the big guys like Taylor Steele and Ian Stewart, so I looked to having something more tangible than a VHS tape full of raw footage after each trip. This is way before iPhones and even iPods, so we always needed a TV to watch footage. My dad bought me a Canon SLR for my 21st birthday. After this I’d switch between video and photos depending on what the waves were like or if I had money to develop the slide film—Mini DV was cheaper.
I still don’t have a preference. Recently I DP’d a shoot in the Maldives for which we had a photographer, so I didn’t need to worry about photos, but I still found myself switching between the two during off moments and shooting some slow-shutter motion blur or time lapse—something that I couldn’t achieve primarily with the video camera.
DPG: Other films you have made that our readers should watch?
MT: My personal favourite is West Away, about two good mates roaming the coastline of the place I feel the most at home in South Australia. The 10-day trip had its fair share of ups and downs, which is reflected in both the mood of the footage and the tone of their interviews. No matter how much time has passed, watching that film brings me straight back into the moment. My favourite commissioned film is Jackson, a simple story of a Tanzanian boy who wasn’t allowed to study at school but progressed through a community center, then high school, before graduating top of his class. His dedication to study was an eye-opener for me.
DPG: Next projects?
MT: I’m directing a few TV commercials over the next month to pay for another trip to the Cook Islands to see what comes out of it—the last time I was there the Mare Vida series somehow emerged unexpectedly. I want to explore underwater sound; the Islands have a certain creativity to them I want to get back to. Then I’m taking a month away from the ocean to work with a sustainable travel organization in Nepal on a 20-day hike. I can’t remember the last time I was away from the ocean for that long, so the mountains had better be really cool!
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